How to Handle a Customer Discrimination Complaint

June 6, 2024
When a customer feels they've been singled out or mistreated, follow these steps.

As a shop owner, you might have a range of emotions if a customer complains of discrimination at your business. Obviously, you don’t want your customers to feel mistreated. You might get defensive about the situation. And the prospect of potentially dealing with a discrimination lawsuit down the road can be pretty intimidating.  

But if you find yourself in this unfortunate predicament, take a breath, stay level-headed, and be sure to take the complaint seriously. It’s not ideal, and it’s a difficult situation to deal with, no doubt, but there are plenty of steps you can take to address the situation and limit any potential damage.  

“Remain calm. I know a lot of people, their first reaction to something like this is to get very defensive; avoid your instincts to do that,” says Ryan Byers, an attorney at Rammelkamp Bradney in Jacksonville, Illinois.

Instead, take the complaint seriously, talk with the customer, figure out what happened, be clear and direct with communication and determine a course of action. Should you find yourself dealing with a discrimination complaint at your shop, here are some steps you can take to properly address the situation.  

 

Investigate

The first step in the process is simply finding out what occurred. Not every discrimination complaint is created equal, so much of the process is dictated by the situation. But in all cases, talk to the customer and take their complaint seriously. Tell them you’ll look into the situation and follow up with them. Be sure you’re true to your word.  

If anyone else witnessed the event, talk to them as well. If a specific employee or employees were the focus of the complaint, talk with them to understand their view of what happened. You can’t begin to address the complaint until you have a firm grasp of what occurred.  

“You just need more information to be able to get to the bottom of it,” says Allison Harrison, the founder of AHL Law Group in Columbus, Ohio. “And maybe you can do something about it, maybe you can’t. But at least if you’re listening and trying to really dial in on it, it shows that you care.”  

The end goal of the investigation should be to determine exactly what happened, whether you feel the complaint was founded or unfounded, and you should understand the severity of the complaint being leveled—you need to understand if you’re dealing with illegal discrimination, such as discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation. 

Once you know what happened, whether the complaint was founded or not, and understand the severity of said complaint, then you can determine a course of action.  

 

Plan a Course of Action 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach you can take to determine a course of action. What you do will depend on what the complaint entails and whether you’ve determined something improper has occurred. But if it’s at all reassuring, most complaints will be dealt with directly from person to person and without litigation.  

“I think the odds are in favor of it being resolved before there’s formal legal action, and even if there’s a suit filed, the odds are very high it will get settled short of trial,” Byers says. 

So let’s say you found the customer’s complaint to be unfounded. In that case, you should still be respectful but communicate to the customer that you’ve investigated, you haven’t found improper conduct, and you don’t intend to take further action.  

But if you believe the case to be founded and want to make things right with that particular customer, you can choose a course of action you deem best. Maybe it’s giving them a discount or covering their repairs entirely. Maybe it’s an apology. Whatever you determine is the best way to make things right with that customer.  

“Some people who are upset by a situation will give you a lot more grace, and maybe the situation will fully resolve if they just feel like they’ve been heard, so hear them out in a non-defensive manner,” Byers says.  

If you do go this route, it could open you up to legal action. Apologies or anything of the sort are information that could be uncovered if the complaint resulted in mediation or a lawsuit. But that isn’t a reason to avoid making things right if you do feel the customer was mistreated, Byers says.  

“If you’re really concerned about that coming back and biting you later, the thing to do is get in touch with your attorney and possibly get them to draw up an agreement that would indicate that, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this for you, whatever the accommodation is, but when we do that, it’s going to be in satisfaction of whatever claims that you think you have,’” Byers says.  

At that point, you’re already in unlikely territory. Most complaints won’t result in any sort of legal action. But that does remain a possibility. So when is it time to talk to lawyers? 

Well, that’s also going to depend on the circumstances. If the complaint is alleging illegal discrimination, for example, you should talk to lawyers immediately. But if you’re dealing with a smaller complaint, say a customer felt they were overcharged $20 for repairs, you may not need to get attorneys involved.  

However, if you are worried about the complaint, it never hurts to play it safe and reach out to your lawyer early and often. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

“I don’t think it’s ever too soon. It’s often too late. Just because it gets more expensive, not because they can’t help you,” Harrison says.  

All in all, how you approach a complaint will entirely depend on the situation and what’s being alleged. But as you attempt to deal with the situation, just be clear and direct in your communication with the customer, follow your best judgment to approach the situation, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your attorney.  

 

Prevention 

For those who have the means, Byers recommends putting your employees through some sort of discrimination or implicit bias training. That not only helps with prevention of these types of discrimination complaints, but it also can be something you could point to should the complaint advance to some form of litigation.  

“In a lot of situations where we’re talking about lawsuits, be it a claim for discrimination or really any other type of claim, is a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Byers says.  

That doesn’t mean discrimination or bias training will be 100% effective in preventing discrimination. It doesn’t mean you won’t be liable if discrimination does occur. But it can be something that helps you when it comes to punitive damages, which are the damages awarded in civil cases if the defendant shows a disregard for the rights or safety of others.  

“If you’ve taken all the right steps and you’ve tried your best, you did training once a month and every time there was a complaint, you have this rigorous investigation period, they’re not going to have as much of a deterrent penalty,” Harrison says.  

But again, that’s getting to the worst-case scenario. In most cases, you won’t even get to litigation. Just be clear and direct, take the customer’s complaint seriously, and take the necessary steps to address it. The end results should be just fine.  

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